Cam Newton's polarizing persona beloved by Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Panthers safety Roman Harper used to be like the rest of them. Back when Harper played for the rival Saints, during Newton's first three seasons in the NFL, he used to look at the Carolina quarterback with those same rolling eyes adopted by so many more this year.

So yes, he gets it.

Yes, he understands the skepticism and the misperceptions. He understands, for those outside Charlotte who can't decide how to feel about Newton, why a guy like him, seemingly just trying to have some fun, manages to come across the wrong way.

"Before I got here?" Harper said Wednesday. "I didn't know him. But I thought he was selfish. I thought he was all about himself. Things like that. Before I got here, my opinion wasn't that great, either. But that's because I didn't know him."

With each passing day and each mini-controversy, Newton's success is somehow turning him into one of the NFL's most polarizing figures -- perhaps its most polarizing character since the most polarizing of them all, Tim Tebow, took center stage. Now Newton's success is putting him in a brighter spotlight, and that spotlight is blinding fresh eyes.

But here's the question, as superficial as it might be: Does Newton really deserve the scrutiny?

We saw the criticism when he ripped a Packers banner from the wall at Bank of America Stadium (his home stadium). We heard it from Titans players who believed he celebrated too much and for too long with "the dab," an Atlanta-born dance move.

We even read about it in a letter to the Charlotte Observer, from the mother of a 9-year-old girl criticizing Newton for his "arrogant" on-field behavior. And when the heat starts to spew from more than a few places, it's probably leading quite a few to question the intentions of the Panthers' superstar.

"I think it's funny that the criticism is coming from the guys who have never played with him or the people who have never met him," tight end Greg Olsen said.

And yes, inside the Panthers' locker room, it is funny. It is funny to them because this criticism has taken on a life of its own across the NFL. People, it seems, aren't just waiting for Newton to do something controversial. They're searching for it instead.

So who is Newton? And how should you feel about him? Well, that's certainly up to each individual to decide, but those inside the Panthers' locker room very clearly and very adamantly don't view him in the same way as many others do. They see the same person as those on the outside -- but they say they recognize the intentions and the context.

"I enjoy him coming to work every day and being the person he is," Harper said. "He brings energy and life to this locker room. He is who he is. He has the juice when we need the juice.

"It's good to have guys who are young and vibrant -- guys who know it's OK to be themselves."

Harper remembers the first time he realized he was wrong about Newton. The quarterback was walking through the locker room, singing "Walk Thru" by Rich Homie Quan: "I be feeling like the man when I walk through!"

Funny, isn't it? Newton singing some very self-involved lyrics caused Harper to view him as something other than selfish. But as Harper explains it, that's exactly the point: When you're around Newton every day, you realize his personality is fun and genuine and far from malicious or fake, even when he's singing a song that sounds straight-up cocky.

That's precisely the reason Panthers coach Ron Rivera also defends Newton's actions and his on-field celebrations: Those who believe he's being malicious or unsportsmanlike aren't watching closely enough. This is a matter of intent, he says.

"I saw it right off the bat," Rivera said. "Watch him when he's handing out the football to a fan after he scores. He's not concerned about the opponent. He's looking for that right little kid to give the football to. He's looking for the right kid."

Rivera says he realizes Newton faces criticism, but that has merely made him recall his playing days with the Chicago Bears, when a group of loud players like Jim McMahon and Refrigerator Perry took on similar personas.

"Man, back when I was playing for Coach [Mike] Ditka, we had guys who transcended that time in football, and I promise you, a lot of people hated us because of it," Rivera said. "But it was never anything malicious.

"It was like that with the Super Bowl Shuffle. Now, I hope we never do anything like that here, but we were having fun. That's what it's about. At the end of the day, a lot of people started to emulate what we did with the Bears because they wanted to have fun."

Yes, Panthers players also believe Newton's vivacious ways might be a little off-putting to outsiders because of the position he plays -- and the expectations set by the quarterbacks who came before him.

"I think we've learned in our society that people are scared sometimes of something that's different," Olsen said. "He's playing the quarterback position different than people are used to. He plays the game more like a linebacker and a receiver all mixed into one. He's unique.

"He's comfortable with that, and we're obviously comfortable with that. You won't find a guy in this room who will say otherwise."

Really, you won't find many in Charlotte who will say otherwise, either. And maybe that's all that matters here. Because when you truly evaluate the criticism of Newton, it's clear it's coming from outside the locker room. This is nothing new. If you survey the league, you will find many other players, dating back to the beginning of Newton's career, who feel like Harper once felt when he played for the Saints.

But when you survey the Panthers' building, you'll find another less-discussed perception.

"His preparation is extremely underrated -- the amount he prepares," quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey said. "I wish people could see his notebook and the notes he takes. He's meticulous. He takes a lot of pride in it, and you appreciate that as a coach. He has never gone into a game unprepared."

The truth? Newton is the type of player you'd love to have in your locker room, in your city, on the team you root for or the team you play for. And when it comes down to it, isn't that what actually matters?

"Back when we did the Super Bowl Shuffle, I just remember people saying, 'Oh, they're a little ahead of themselves,' " Rivera said. "I vividly remember the criticism. But in Chicago ... Are you kidding me? They still love it."

In Charlotte, they love Newton.

And if he keeps winning like this, you'd better believe they always will.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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